When Buzz Williams left Marquette for Virginia Tech two years ago, people around college basketball were perplexed. Williams had gone to five NCAA Tournaments, two Sweet 16s, and one Elite Eight in six seasons at Marquette, and he turned down many more lucrative coaching offers during that time. Of all the jobs Williams could have taken, why pick a perennial bottom-feeder that had made the tourney twice in the past 30 years? And, of all the possible bottom-feeders, why this one?
Virginia Tech was in disarray to the point of disaster. James Johnson, the previous coach, had been there for only two seasons and he left behind a roster bereft of talent. The Hokies had a 9-22 record, and were 2-16 in ACC play. They were dead last in a 15-school mega-conference, bloated by expansion and headlined by blue-blood programs like Duke, UNC, Louisville, and Syracuse, as well as perennial NCAA contenders like Virginia, NC State, Notre Dame, Pittsburgh, and Miami.
After staying in the basement in Year 1 of Williams's tenure, the Hokies have started to turn the corner in Year 2. At 12-11, Virginia Tech already has more wins than they had all of last season. They also have a 4-5 conference record, with wins over Virginia and NC State and agonizingly close losses to Notre Dame and UNC. Improbably, and more quickly than anyone expected, the future looks very bright in Blacksburg. Here's how Williams did it.
1) Wipe the slate clean
As the old basketball saying goes, it's not the X's and the O's, it's the Jimmys and the Joes. The first step for any coach in his situation is to clean house, and Williams took little time reshaping the roster in his image. Two years later, junior guard Devin Wilson is the only one of Johnson's players left. The only way for Virginia Tech to compete with the best teams in the ACC was to get better players. The tricky part was getting them to Blacksburg.
2) Take advantage of the transfer market
College basketball players are changing schools at an unprecedented rate, and a school like Virginia Tech is perfectly positioned to take advantage of the trend. Transfers are looking for an opportunity to play and put up stats in a Power Five conference, and they aren't as picky about finding that opportunity as kids coming out of high school. The meter's running, after all. Williams has pursued transfers both ambitiously and effectively. Three Hokies starters are transfers: Seth Allen (Maryland), Zach LeDay (South Florida), and Shane Henry (junior college).
3) Recruit every position
Williams's first two recruiting classes at Virginia Tech have been about filling out the roster. In Year 1, he brought in three wings 6'4'' or taller (Ahmed Hill, Justin Bibbs, and Jalen Hudson) and a big man (7' Satchel Pierce). In Year 2, he brought in a 6'1'' point guard (Justin Robinson), a 6'6'' forward (Chris Clarke), and two more big men (6'9'' Kerry Blackshear Jr. and 6'11'' Johnny Hamilton). None are five-star guys or locks to play at the next level, but the depth they provide means Tech has players at every position and can match up with any team in the ACC.
In theory, bringing in an elite recruit can change the direction of a program. However, a star who is only going to be on campus for one season can accelerate the timetable to rebuild and then leave before things have been turned around. This is how it works in the one-and-done business, and it makes a coach's job trickier than just bringing in as many good players as possible.
Just look at what's happening at Williams' old school. Likely 2016 lottery pick Henry Ellenson is the best player on a 15-7 Marquette team that has a 4-5 record in the Big East. By the time his supporting cast is ready to win, Ellenson will be in the NBA and, at least for the program, there will be nothing to show for his time with the team.
4) Build a team that fits together
Watching Virginia Tech play, what jumps out most is how well all the pieces fit together. Williams isn't just haphazardly assembling talent—he's building a team. He has a pick-and-roll point guard (Allen), a big man who can roll to the rim (Blackshear), a mismatch forward who allows them to play four-out basketball (LeDay), a secondary creator on the perimeter (Clarke), and wings who open up the floor (Bibbs and Hudson). Tech has all the necessary components to run a modern offense and be better than the sum of its parts.
5) Build a team that grows together
There's only one senior (Henry) on Tech's roster and no players who look like threats to declare early for the NBA Draft. The rest of the team will be back next season, and will be an impressively battle-tested one: the Hokies currently start two juniors, a sophomore, and a freshman, and they bring a junior, two sophomores, and a freshman off the bench. Tech's not going to have as much talent as many of their competitors in the ACC, but they are going to have an advantage when it comes to continuity and experience.
The key for them will be to follow the blueprint they have been using this season: protect home court and try to steal a few games on the road. The biggest benefit of playing in a conference like the ACC is that the best teams in the country are coming into your gym on an annual basis, which gives a hungry program a ton of chances to put itself on the map. Tech has home games against Virginia, NC State, Louisville, UNC, Pittsburgh, and Miami this season. Those are all tough games, but also a bunch of potential signature wins.
It's very difficult to win true road games at the NCAA level, and schools like Duke and UNC rarely play them. They might play a few road games against other power schools in November and December, but they are mostly playing at home, on neutral floors, or in non-conference tournaments. Very rarely do schools not in their own conference get a chance to beat them as visitors. That's why mid-majors struggle to get at-large bids to the field of 68—they just don't get chances to get résumé-building wins in the course of the season.
In its own gym, Virginia Tech's talent deficit won't be quite as glaring, and they play in a way that should always give them a chance. Tech can spread the floor for guys who can initiate offense, and they can defend every position. That gives them a shot against anyone when they are playing in front of 10,000 screaming fans. If they can maintain their level of play for the rest of this season, they should make the NIT. From there, they will be well positioned to make the NCAA tournament in Year 3 of the Buzz Williams Experience.
Williams has built the infrastructure to support any future NBA players he can bring to campus. He has proved he can develop them at Marquette—he turned Jimmy Butler, Jae Crowder, and Wesley Matthews from unheralded recruits into NBA stalwarts. If one or two of the young players he has now can make that leap, Tech will be able to play with anyone in the ACC. Which is shorthand for saying they'll be able to play with any team in the country.
At this point in the Virginia Tech project, it's not so hard to see why a coach like Williams was drawn to this team and this conference. He's competitive, like all top coaches, and he is smart enough to know that you have to beat the best to be the best. That's easier said than done, but no conference offers more chances to do that than the ACC.